One year on—Trade in goods between Great Britain and the European Union Contents

Chapter 4: Delays to import controls

The decision to delay

132.In contrast to the EU, the UK Government has taken a phased approach to introducing checks and controls on goods imported from Great Britain from the EU. Some checks and controls, notably those on tobacco and alcohol, were introduced immediately. Others, notably SPS checks and controls on agri-food products, were originally scheduled to commence from 1 April and 1 July 2021. The Government also introduced an easement allowing most traders to defer customs declarations (and with them, payment of import VAT and any tariffs) by up to 175 days after import, originally until 1 July 2021.

133.On 11 March 2021, the Government announced that it was delaying the introduction of these checks and controls until 1 October 2021 (for certain SPS controls), 1 January 2022 (for full customs declarations and most of the remaining SPS controls) and 1 March 2022 (for SPS checks on live animals).

134.On 14 September, two weeks before the scheduled date for the introduction of the first set of checks, the Government announced a further delay, with many controls now not due to come into force until July 2022. Notably, however, the 1 January 2022 deadline for the expiry of the ability to defer customs declarations remained in place. The Government’s revised timetable is as follows:

135.Lord Frost explained that the Government’s decision to delay some controls (primarily SPS) but not others (primarily customs), “essentially depended on what we felt the burden on business of the next step was and how far down the road we already were.” For customs, the Government “felt the extra burden … was not going to be significantly onerous compared to where we were”, whereas “SPS controls are different—you need veterinary certificates and a different set of processes—and we felt that businesses needed a bit longer to get ready for that.”164

Merits of the decision

136.The decision to delay the introduction of these checks and controls has varied both between and within different sectors. Logistics UK said that the delay “has been met in the logistics industry with mixed feelings”; some in the industry had been relieved at the delay, while others felt that it penalised companies that had taken the trouble to prepare for the deadline.165

137.A number of witnesses broadly supported the delay, particularly in the context of ongoing pressures on supply chains.166 Some cautioned, however, that this could not be a long-term solution and that ultimately, it was important that the checks were implemented.167 Speaking for the Federation for Small Businesses, James Sibley “welcomed the delay as probably a sensible decision, considering the supply chain crisis”, but stressed that “this cannot be a long-term solution. There is disquiet in our membership about the asymmetric nature of import controls.”168

138.Richard Ballantyne of the British Ports Association saw the decision to delay as “generally quite welcome” among port operators, although some ports “were somewhat frustrated that they had got ready and then found that the goalposts had been moved.”169

139.Other groups were less equivocal in their support for the delay: Sam Lowe from the Centre for European Reform was clear in his opinion that “the Government [had] made the right decision”170, and both Joe Marshall of the Institute for Government171 and the ADS172 pointed to relieving the pressure on firms as a clear benefit of the decision. Speaking for the British Chambers of Commerce, William Bain also supported the “pragmatic” decision to delay. He added that the new July 2022 deadline for SPS controls had specific seasonal benefits: “In the summer period the UK is less dependent on imports of food from the EU … If you will introduce a very big change such as identity and physical checks on SPS products, it would seem a more logical time to introduce them [compared to the winter].”173

140.However, some stakeholders were significantly more critical. The Institute of Directors did “not agree with the decision to delay the introduction of checks, because it shows that government is feeling hesitant, and businesses need certainty.”174

141.The Food and Drink Federation has also been deeply critical of the decision to delay. Speaking for them, Luke Hindlaugh viewed it as an indication of a lack of drive on the part of the Government, telling us that exporters “have felt that the Government have not really pushed for replicating what they are doing with the imports”, with the knock-on effect of removing “leverage around getting some of the easements that were agreed when the TCA was first in place.” He also did not see disruption to supply chains as sufficient grounds for delay: they “are not short-term” and “delaying these checks does not make them any easier.”175 The National Farmers’ Union was also critical of the decision to delay.176

142.In addition, the specific decision to further delay the introduction of Safety and Security Declarations seems at odds with the statement in the Border Operating Model that the requirement for these Declarations “protects the UK against potential threats such as terrorism and the trade from illicit goods such as guns and drugs”. Asked if this meant the UK had faced, and would continue to face, a heightened threat in the meantime, the Paymaster General, Michael Ellis MP, described Safety and Security Declarations as “incredibly important” but said he did not “anticipate any issues”, as the Declarations would “improve on an already good system” as far as border security was concerned.177

143.In its report, the NAO highlights the “ongoing risks in not having a full import control regime in place”: the latest delay “means a continued disadvantage for UK exporters compared with EU exporters” and “leaves the UK open to potential challenge that it is not complying with international trading rules.”178

144.The Government’s decision to further delay the introduction of import controls has both real advantages and real disadvantages, which were reflected in the evidence we received. We note that the decision allows businesses additional time to prepare for the new requirements at a challenging time. However, we also note the concerns of some businesses, particularly in the agri-food sector, that the additional delay undermines business certainty and does not resolve the issues at hand.

145.Despite the Minister’s confidence otherwise, we remain concerned that the delay to the introduction of Safety and Security Declarations could undermine UK border security. As the Government’s own Border Operating Model states, the requirement for these Declarations “protects the UK against potential threats such as terrorism and the trade from illicit goods such as guns and drugs”—yet these will not be required until 1 July 2022, 18 months after the end of the transition period. We call on the Government to clarify what steps it is taking to protect the UK border from these potential threats in the absence of Safety and Security Declarations.

Timing of the decision

146.While the reaction to the decision to delay itself was mixed, the reaction to the timing of the decision was largely negative. For Joe Marshall, “both the timing of it and the fact that we have had repeated delays [risked] damaging [the Government’s] relationship with traders and business groups.”179 This sentiment was echoed by Sam Lowe who, “would have absolutely made the same decision but … would have perhaps not taken so long to tell everyone I was going to do it.”180 Luke Hindlaugh explained that “the lateness meant that businesses had to keep preparing right up to the wire, at a cost … You could not take the risk of not preparing, despite all the rumours that were going round around a possible delay.”181

147.However, Emma Churchill of the Cabinet Office did not agree that the Government had “left it till the last minute … we regrouped and took into account the strains on supply chains that were emerging over the summer as soon as it was practicable to do so.”182

148.Notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of the decision itself, we regret the fact that that the Government only announced the delay to import controls less than three weeks before the first set of controls were due to be introduced. Announcing the decision at this late stage undermined business planning and may have reinforced the impression among many businesses that these checks and controls will never be introduced. Any further changes to the timetable, if they are needed, should be announced at the earliest possible opportunity.

The reasons for the decision


149.In explaining the reasons for delaying the implementation of these checks and controls, Lord Frost focussed on COVID-19’s impact on business, telling us that “the last year and a half in the economy has been so unusual … that we have not wanted to add to the burdens, and therefore thought that the right thing was to move these back.”183

150.Emma Churchill of the Cabinet Office expanded on the pressures caused by COVID-19 and other supply chain factors, adding that “Ministers were particularly influenced by … the strains that were currently on supply chains, particularly in relation to the agri-food sector, which is why the SPS controls were particularly delayed.”184

151.Her assessment was therefore that COVID-19 was a major factor in the decision to delay, with “businesses … saying to [the Government] that the impact on them of the pandemic was going on longer, and they were asking for more time to adjust”185, with which a number of our witnesses agreed.

152.However, while acknowledging the effect of COVID-19 on businesses and supply chains, Sam Lowe did not agree that this provided a satisfactory reason for the late timing of the delay: “COVID disruption has played a part in it, but that disruption was known for a long time in advance … It was entirely foreseeable.”186

153.For other witnesses, COVID-19 did not provide the whole explanation. Elly Darkin cited the “supply chain crisis”, which she described as “a multifactor-caused crisis of which the pandemic was inevitably a contributing factor but not, in my view, the key one. Far more crucial were Brexit-related labour shortages.”187

Government readiness

154.The Government’s position is that its own readiness was not a factor in the delay to import controls; Lord Frost told us that “we were confident that, as regards government preparations, we were ready on the original timetable.”188

155.Several witnesses, however, identified the Government’s readiness for the introduction of the checks and controls as one of the primary factors behind the decision to delay. Regarding the 1 October 2021 deadlines, the Agricultural Industries Confederation, which represents the agricultural supply sector, wrote that “it was clear that government authorities and EU Member States were not ready to implement the requirements.”189

156.The NAO’s verdict on government readiness is that “most of the systems, infrastructure and resources needed for January 2022 were on track but there were elements of delivery which were at risk and where departments might have had to deploy contingency plans”, particularly the completion of government-funded infrastructure at a small number of ports.190

157.The Government argues that its preparations were on track for the original timetable and were not a factor in the decision to delay import controls. However, we note the scepticism of several of our witnesses regarding this claim, particularly with respect to physical infrastructure.

The consequences of the decision

Fiscal consequences

158.We sought evidence on the impact on government finances of the decision to delay the implementation of the various checks and controls, seeking clarity on the possible loss of duty and VAT revenue. Sophie Dean of HMRC explained that the OBR had “looked at just that question and estimated a risk of £50 million for the first six months of [2021] and an additional £35 million at risk for the six-month extension.”191

Asymmetric border

159.The delayed introduction of controls and checks on imports to Great Britain has resulted in a significant asymmetry between the treatment of imported goods and of those exported to the EU. In their evidence, Dr Enrico Vanino, Professor Jun Du and Dr Mustapha Douch wrote that this asymmetry had caused “significant uncertainty among traders regarding the new arrangements under which goods can be traded between the two markets.”192 The Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) wrote that “94% of [member] businesses have experienced delays or friction on exports to the EU since 1st January” whereas only “25% of AIC Member businesses had noticed issues on importing goods from EU to GB since 1st January.”193

160.The strongest criticism of this asymmetry came from the National Farmers’ Union, who wrote that since January, “UK agri-food exporters to the EU have lost more than £1.8 billion [yet] … EU competitors have been given extended grace periods”, adding that while “Further delays to controls … may go some way to keep supermarket shelves stocked”, the “current production and supply issues are largely due to workforce availability … delay to controls on EU imported products will do little to address [these]”.194

161.The National Farmers’ Union added that repeated delays “make it harder each time to have genuine engagement and see the necessary resource allocation amongst EU traders.”195

162.However, not all witnesses identified the ongoing asymmetry as a cause for concern. Elly Darkin said that it “really depends on the level of complexity of the supply chain and how frequently your goods might cross the border with the EU and the UK”.196 Prof Jun Du and Dr Oleksandr Shepotylo saw the delays as having “mitigated potentially even larger disruptions in the UK supply chains,” adding that “the evidence of an asymmetric trade effect due to the asymmetric checks across the UK-EU border is weak.”197

163.Indeed, some witnesses even saw specific benefits in the ongoing absence of many checks and controls at the GB border. Elly Darkin saw risks in introducing import controls: “I do not think that a switch from the current situation to one where there would be more controls, more paperwork and more bureaucracy for business will make the status quo more sustainable in the future.”198 Sam Lowe went further, explaining that “many UK producers import to export, so having low-cost imports from the EU is in the interests of many UK firms … I do not think the argument that it is unfair and bad for UK business is the full one because it really depends on what you do.”199

164.For the Government, Emma Churchill acknowledged that asymmetry had “certainly been raised by some businesses in some sectors.” However, she saw this as a temporary issue and “the window where … [asymmetry] is persisting, in any event, is a very short one.”200

Business planning

165.A further effect of the repeated delays to the introduction of these checks and controls is that, in the words of Elly Darkin, the shifting of deadlines “really impacts business planning”. Businesses need to make decisions, such as recruitment and resourcing, that have financial implications. The perception that there is “a possibility that the timeline gets extended or pushed back again” means that “they will probably hold off on doing it, which means that there is more disruption and uncertainty when those deadlines eventually expire.”201

166.As Luke Hindlaugh of the Food and Drink Federation stressed, business certainty over the deadlines themselves is an important factor in terms of preparedness: “the biggest incentive you can give to prepare is the absolute clarity that this [introduction of controls] is going to happen. That is the single biggest intervention Government can make”.202

167.Nonetheless, there was some consensus with the view, as expressed by Logistics UK, that the repeated delays “penalised those companies that invested time and money to be ready”. Logistics UK also stressed that “it is now crucial that Government sticks to the latest timeline to allow stakeholders in the UK and the EU to plan confidently”.203

168.Sam Lowe also stressed this ambiguity. While he reiterated his belief that the Government had made the right decision in delaying further, he agreed that this meant that “you end up punishing those that have sought to comply and have probably paid premiums to get the advice they need … vis-a-vis their competitors, who perhaps did not bother.”204

169.Luke Hindlaugh was more critical, pointing to the wasted investment that had resulted: “There will inevitably be some knowledge that people retain about the processes … However, things have been invested and wasted … that is resource that could have been spent elsewhere had it not been for such a late delay on this.”205

170.Conversely, William Bain was more positive, stating that “the preparations that have been done by our members were certainly not wasted and can be stood up again.”206 For the Government, Emma Churchill also pushed back against the argument that preparations had been wasted: “If businesses have taken the necessary steps to prepare, they will still be ready for when the other controls come in.”207

171.Joe Marshall, however, believed that the effects went further than simply penalising the well-prepared, seeing also “a risk that, for some firms, it sends the message that checks are never coming. It cements the idea that the status quo will last for ever.”208

172.There is clearly a concern among some UK businesses that the asymmetry in the import controls applied by the EU and the UK has placed GB exporters to the EU at a competitive disadvantage compared to EU businesses exporting to GB. However, some UK businesses import to export, meaning that less paperwork and fewer controls may have helped them and may also have mitigated more severe disruptions in UK supply chains. We recognise the very real supply-chain imperatives that have driven this state of affairs and note that the current level of asymmetry is temporary, and ought to be rectified by the scheduled introduction of full import checks and controls from January and July 2022.

173.With respect to the longer term, we ask the Government to explain how it will take a calibrated and strategic approach to its use of asymmetry at the border, in such a way as to maximise the UK’s competitive strength as a trading nation.

174.We heard concerns over repeated delays damaging business confidence in the Government’s timetable, with a risk that they send the message that import controls will be delayed again or never be implemented at all. It is vital that the Government takes steps to address this. Ensuring the 1 January 2022 deadline for customs controls is adhered to and goes as smoothly as possible would build confidence ahead of the later deadlines from July.

175.We also heard that the decision to delay had penalised those who prepared, at a cost, for the original deadlines. Although these preparations for the original deadlines were not wasted entirely, it would have been preferable in terms of business certainty if the Government had set out a realistic timetable at the outset and stuck to it rather than repeatedly moving deadlines.

Further delay

176.Lord Frost was adamant that the Government would “stick to the dates that are now in place unless we get another terrible wave of the pandemic.”209 It was notable, however, that the Paymaster General was much less willing to be drawn into committing to this timetable.210

177.Witnesses varied in the extent to which they had faith in the Government’s intention not to delay further. Sarah Laouadi believed that the Government was taking the new deadlines “seriously”211 and James Sibley did not see any benefit in exploring alternatives, explaining that the “Government are telling us that it is coming in on 1 January or 1 July, and we can only go with that. It does not help our members to speculate, so we have to work to that timetable.”212

178.Richard Ballantyne believed that the Government was broadly committed to the current deadlines but suspected that “you might find that the major deadlines are honoured but there may be one or two easements that the Government introduce.”213 Joe Marshall was also reluctant to rule out the possibility of a further delay, but did acknowledge that the Government’s decision to retain the January 2022 deadline for full customs controls “shows that they are making progress and edging towards full controls.”214

179.In terms of the desirability of any further delay, there was widespread agreement, even from some who supported the most recent delay, that this should be avoided if at all possible. Competere not only viewed such a delay as ultimately futile because “the history of the easements in both the GB-EU and GB-NI context shows that traders do not use the time to get ready when easements are extended,” but also saw border security implications: “As long as the easement is in place, the UK border is not secure … While this was acceptable for a temporary period, any further delay would not be welcomed.”215

180.Sarah Laouadi stressed the importance of taking care “not to undermine the confidence that businesses and their EU counterparts, supply chain partners, suppliers and customers, have in this country’s plans regarding the upcoming import requirements.”216 Dr Anna Jerzewska of Trade and Borders had seen increasing “deadline fatigue when it comes to all these deadlines being pushed and extended time after time. There is a little bit of a sense of lack of urgency,” adding that “it is very easy for a company to miss a deadline just because there are so many of them.”217

181.ADS was concerned that the “level of acceptance for the current asymmetric model in the industry is … likely to decline over time.” On this point, Luke Hindlaugh provided a concrete supporting example, telling us that the Food and Drink Federation had supported the first delay, tolerated the second, but strongly opposed the third. 218

182.ADS also argued that “additional delay to the introduction of import controls would create adjustment costs, increase uncertainty and undermine the level of trust required for businesses to invest in readiness.”219 This sentiment was echoed by Richard Ballantyne, who explained that port operators were “nervous that there could be further delays for which they still have to pay the operating costs, pay the staffing, pay energy usage, pay sometimes business rates, for those facilities with no opportunity to raise revenue from charging operators to use those BCPs.”220

183.The National Farmers’ Union had similar concerns: “It is vital that the UK Government uses the time wisely between now and the next key dates to ensure that we do not simply see any further delays announced.”221 For its part, however, the Agricultural Industries Confederation was more relaxed about the potential for further delay. It recognised that the eventual introduction of import checks would be preferable but cautioned that “given the current pressures in the agri-supply chain relating to inputs and labour shortages, we must keep this timetable under review as circumstances change.”222

184.Although we view the arguments for and against the most recent delay to import controls as finely balanced, we agree with the majority of our witnesses that there should not be a fourth delay. Now that it has set out its new timetable, we urge the Government to stick to it.

185.We note that the deadline for the Government to respond to this report will fall after 1 January 2022, when full customs controls are due to be introduced. If either these controls or those scheduled for 1 July 2022 are delayed in the interim, we will expect the Government’s response to address the reasons and impact of such a decision in detail.

WTO compliance

186.A further potential consequence of the Government’s delays to the introduction of import controls was the impact this could have on the UK’s compliance with its other international obligations. One potential concern was the possibility of legal action against the Government under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, on the grounds that the failure to implement controls and checks on EU imports meant that these goods were given preferential treatment compared to those from non-EU WTO members (a potential breach of the WTO’s most-favoured-nation principle). The NAO has warned that the delay “leaves the UK open to potential challenge that it is not complying with international trading rules.”223

187.Sam Lowe accepted that “[the] UK [was] discriminating positively in favour of imports from the EU” but saw little practical risk. Even if one accepted that this could not be justified under the TCA and “therefore you are discriminating positively against [sic] the EU without good reason”, he added that “the follow-up question is: who cares? Does any other country care enough to bring a dispute against you, and are they able to prove harm?” He concluded, “Once you make your way through all those questions, my opinion is that, at least in so far as the Government are saying that these easements are temporary, they have nothing to worry about.”224

188.On this point, Emma Churchill did not see cause for concern. She told us that the Government had fully considered this issue “when [it] made the decision to have a short, further time-limited delay to some controls” and it was “confident that it is in line with [the UK’s] WTO obligations.”225

189.The National Audit Office (NAO) has warned that, in delaying the introduction of import controls, the UK risks the possibility of legal action under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a potential breach of the latter’s ‘most-favoured-nation’ principle. The Government told us, however, that it was confident that its decision to employ a short, time-limited extension was in line with the UK’s WTO obligations. We agree that, so long as the situation is time-bound, there is a low risk of adverse legal consequences flowing from this delay. We remain to be convinced, however, that this would remain the case if the status quo persisted indefinitely, without these checks and controls being introduced.

164 Oral evidence taken on 26 October 2021 (Session 2021–22), Q 12 (Lord Frost CMG)

165 Written evidence from Logistics UK (TIG0010) ; see also Q 41 (Sarah Laouadi, Richard Ballantyne).

166 Q 5 (Sam Lowe and Joe Marshall)

167 Written evidence from the Agricultural Industries Confederation (TIG0002); see also, written evidence from ADS (TIG0003), Q 22 (William Bain), and written evidence from the Horticultural Trades Association (TIG0009).

168 Q 22 (James Sibley)

169 Q 41 (Richard Ballantyne)

170 Q 5 (Sam Lowe)

171 Written evidence from the Institute for Government (TIG0014)

172 Written evidence from ADS (TIG0003)

173 Q 22 (William Bain)

174 Written evidence from the Institute of Directors (TIG0007)

175 Q 22 (Luke Hindlaugh)

176 Written evidence from the National Farmers Union (TIG0015)

178 National Audit Office, The UK border: Post UK-EU transition period (5 November 2021): [accessed 30 November 2021]

179 Q 5 (Joe Marshall)

180 Q 5 (Same Lowe)

181 Q 23 (Luke Hindlaugh)

182 Q 61 (Emma Churchill)

183 Oral evidence taken on 26 October 2021 (Session 2021–22), Q 11 (Lord Frost CMG)

184 Q 61 (Emma Churchill)

185 Ibid.

186 Q 5 (Sam Lowe)

187 Q 5 (Elly Darkin)

188 Oral evidence taken on 26 October 2021 (Session 2021–22), Q 13 (Lord Frost CMG)

189 Written evidence from the Agricultural Industries Confederation (TIG0002); see also Q 5 (Joe Marshall) and Q 41 (Richard Ballantyne).

190 National Audit Office, The UK border: Post UK-EU transition period (5 November 2021): [accessed 30 November 2021]

191 Sophie Dean’s understanding was that the reason for the decline in the forecast risk for the extension period was that many businesses had already started to submit full customs declarations, despite the delays. See Q 60.

192 Written evidence from Dr Enrico Vanino, Professor Jun Du and Dr Mustapha Douch (TIG0008)

193 Written evidence from the Agricultural Industries Confederation (TIG0002)

194 Written evidence from the National Farmers Union (TIG0015)

195 Ibid.

196 Q 6 (Elly Darkin)

197 Written evidence from Professor Jun Du and Dr Oleksandr Shepotylo (TIG0011)

198 Q 7 (Elly Darkin)

199 Q 6 (Sam Lowe)

200 Q 60 (Emma Churchill)

201 Q 1 (Elly Darkin)

202 Q 23 (Luke Hindlaugh)

203 Written evidence from Logistics UK (TIG0010)

204 Q 5 (Sam Lowe)

205 Q 22 (Luke Hindlaugh)

206 Q 23 (William Bain)

207 Q 61 (Emma Churchill)

208 Q 5 (Joe Marshall)

209 Oral evidence taken on 26 October 2021 (Session 2021–22), Q 11 (Lord Frost CMG)

210 Q 86 (Michael Ellis MP)

211 Q 42 (Sarah Laouadi)

212 Q 24 (James Sibley)

213 Q 42 (Richard Ballantyne); see also Q 9 (Sam Lowe).

214 Q 9 (Joe Marshall)

215 Written evidence from Competere (TIG0004)

216 41 (Sarah Laouadi)

217 Q 41 (Dr Anna Jerzewska)

218 Q 22 (Luke Hindlaugh)

219 Written evidence from ADS (TIG0003)

220 Q 41 (Richard Ballantyne)

221 Written evidence from the National Farmers Union (TIG0015)

222 Written evidence from the Agricultural Industries Confederation (TIG0002)

223 National Audit Office, The UK border: Post UK-EU transition period (5 November 2021): [accessed 30 November 2021]; see also written evidence from the National Farmers Union (TIG0015).

224 Q 8 (Sam Lowe)

225 Q 60 (Emma Churchill)

© Parliamentary copyright 2021